For thespians, copyright in theatre is one of the most essential topics to know and understand. It’s right up there with knowing the building blocks of your craft—like knowing how to read sheet music, how to properly format a script, and how to fix a costume’s loose hem. When you create for the stage (and what you interpret from others’ work), it’s legally protected property.

You may have heard or read about a recent, unauthorized production of Hamilton in August 2022. The Door Christian Fellowship Ministries in McAllen, Texas, staged and live-streamed performances of the blockbuster musical without first obtaining official permission from the production’s creators and copyright owners. The church must now pay damages as a result of their copyright violations.

Specifically, the church came under fire for a number of violations. They altered dialogue and lyrics, changed some of the music, deleted songs, advertised the production using the show’s logo, streamed it online, and utilized costume and set designs that are all too similar to those in the original production.

You can read more about the story here. Let’s take a closer look at copyright in theatre and how it affects artists, students, and educators, so that you can be sure the work you’re doing is respectful and legal.


In the United States, copyright is “a type of intellectual property that protects original works of authorship as soon as an author fixes the work in a tangible form of expression.” Copyright law makes it illegal for anyone to use protected work without the author’s permission during the author’s lifetime plus 70 years.

LegalZoom provides a detailed list of protected works under copyright law:

  • Literary works. This can include novels, nonfiction works, poems, articles, essays, directories, advertising, catalogs, speeches, and computer programs.
  • Musical works. This category includes both the musical notation and the accompanying words.
  • Dramatic works. This type includes plays, operas, scripts, screenplays, and any accompanying music.
  • Pantomimes and choreographic works. Popular dance steps are not included in this type of work.
  • Pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works. Works included are sketches, drawings, cartoons, paintings, photographs, slides, greeting cards, architectural and engineering drawings, maps, charts, globes, sculptures, jewelry, glassware, models, tapestries, fabric designs, and wallpapers.
  • Motion pictures and other audiovisual works. These include movies, videos, and film strips.
  • Sound recordings. This includes recorded music, voice, and sound effects. Thunder, animal noises, and other sounds of nature may be copyrighted by the persons who record them.
  • Compilations. You can put together a collection of existing materials and the collection as a whole can be copyrighted. Some examples would be a book of poems written about trees or a list of the best cancer doctors in the U.S.”

Copyright protection does not extend to “any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.”

Designer sketching



The Dramatists Guild, which has a copyright advocacy program, says artists in the theatre industry work for themselves. Because of that, copyright protection enables them to earn and sustain a living off their work. They distill the importance of copyright in theatre as follows:

“Everybody who writes or records original material has a copyright in their writing, whether it’s a play, libretto, lyric, or musical composition. Owning the copyright is what gives the author the ability to negotiate fair contracts for the use of their work, and everybody who licenses and performs a show has to abide by those contracts.”

In a video resource titled “Copyright 101,” the Dramatists Guild explains that copyright protection begins at “the moment of creation.” Once you’ve written something with the intention of producing, publishing, or performing it in some way, your work becomes copyright-protected. Additionally, copyright protection gives artists the right to reproduce, publish, display, perform, distribute copies, and create derivative works from the art they create.

In a theatrical production, other copyright-protected works can include set design, costume design, lighting design, and choreography. Stage directions, as interpreted by a director, typically do not fall under copyright protection. An article, “Property Rights and Wrongs” from American Theatre, notes, “Directorial choices such as blocking or production concept continue to occupy nebulous ground legally.” (Check out the full post to learn about specific examples.)


By definition, fair use is “a legal doctrine that promotes freedom of expression by permitting the unlicensed use of copyright-protected works in certain circumstances.” Essentially, it means there are some activities and situations in which it’s okay to use copyright-protected material without the copyright holder’s permission. Some of these instances include news reporting, research, comment, scholarship, criticism, and teaching.

However—and it’s a big however—that doesn’t mean educators have universal permission to use copyright-protected material in school. You might use a script, a recording, a film, or a novel for educational use within your curriculum, but you can’t claim fair use when it comes to performances. This is a common misconception with theatrical performance in schools. When you’re utilizing copyright-protected material for the stage, you must request permission (and, most likely, pay certain fees) to present a performance.

Actors rehearsing


This article only touches on the basics of copyright in theatre. Copyright law is expansive and evolves over time with amendments and additions. Here are a few, essential steps that will keep you from landing in hot water with your productions:

  • ALWAYS obtain permission first. It doesn’t matter if you’re performing for a class, presenting to a private audience, or staging a show for free—you must license the performance rights from the author or their legal representation (typically that’s a licensing agency).
  • Never make changes without the author’s permission. Adjusting any portion of the material as it’s dictated in the script is a copyright violation. Requesting to make changes isn’t as daunting as you might think. Authors approve changes all the time to accommodate specific audiences and performers, but you must ask permission first. You can submit your changes and allow them to approve, deny, or suggest alternatives.
  • Don’t post a video of the performance. Many licensing companies these days offer streaming rights and on-demand viewing options to accommodate audiences. There are usually specifications which allow you to use video for marketing and promotional services, too. But if you’re thinking about sharing the performance publicly, on broadcast, or on social media without any permission beforehand, don’t. Remember that theatre is a live art form, meant to be enjoyed in the moment with the people in the room.

Finally, be sure to check out these resources so that you’re even more equipped with copyright knowledge.

Natalie Clare is a regular contributor to Visit her site.

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